By Tim Causer, on 16 April 2012
An artwork by Shirin Homann-Saadat has been installed alongside the Auto-Icon here at UCL, and will be on display for the next month. The piece is entitled ‘The Third Bentham Box‘ – after the first (containing the Auto-Icon), and the second (which contains Bentham’s head).
For those unable to visit the Auto-Icon, below is a translation of the German writing in the interior of the box:
Since 1850 a strange mahogany box has been located in the South Cloisters of University College London. It contains the stuffed skeleton of Jeremy Bentham in his original clothes, with his cane and glasses. Only his head was “reconstructed”. His real head is to be found in a second box in the College archives.
In his last will Bentham decreed that his friend Dr Southwood Smith should “auto-iconise” his body for posterity. Experts still debate whether Bentham’s wish to be “auto-iconised” was a case of exaggerated self-importance or the practical joke of an eccentric.
However, Many years later a female philosopher and passionate enthusiast of Bentham’s support for animal rights, women’s suffrage and the abolition of the monarchy commissioned a third box…
The third Bentham Box
On 28th November 1973 the female philosopher attended a lecture on Bentham’s panopticon and prison reforms at the Collège de France. Using Bentham’s panopticon drawings she carefully pointed out some inaccuracies in the panopticon interpretations of the French lecturer. The French lecturer, a man called Foucault, is reported to have answered:
“Mais Madame, who will check Monsieur Bentham’s little Panopticon drawings? I reason and I talk, parce que I am interested in Auto-Iconisation!”
The female philosopher realised that the Frenchman had a point, so she left Paris. Back in London she immediately commissioned a third Bentham Box:
She decided to carve in stone what she felt was Bentham’s most important question. And she arranged to place the stone box next to Bentham’s wooden auto-icon for posterity
This is the interpretative text which will also be displayed with the box:
This work asks us many questions. At UCL we simply stroll past the auto-icon, it’s part of the furniture which we stop seeing. Instead, we are now invited to reflect not only on just what Bentham is doing here, but on space, and how we live in it, on what makes us us, and not some body or some thing else, and on how the spaces we inhabit inform our self-perception. Bentham and Foucault disagreed about all these issues. What do you think?
We are thoroughly delighted to be hosting this work, and look forward to reading your comments upon it – and Bentham’s Auto-Icon – in the space below.